U.S. NAVAL BASE, Guam – The USNS John Ericsson is a nomad.
Operated by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, or MSC, the 677-foot replenishment oiler and its mixed Navy and Merchant Marine crew of 19 officers and 84 enlisted personnel have no permanent home port.
Temporarily berthed here at Naval Base Guam, the Ericsson in recent months has refueled Navy warships off the Hawaiian coast and rushed to the South China Sea to join in the search for the missing Malaysian airliner with 12 crewmembers and 227 passengers aboard.
Named for Swedish-American inventor and mechanical engineer John Ericsson, who designed the Navy’s Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, the Ericsson (T-AO-194) and its crew have also participated in several humanitarian and rescue missions and have visited numerous Pacific nations on goodwill visits.
One of these involved partnering with local charities in constructing and painting a chapel and three shelters for homeless children, women and families in Olongapo, the Philippines.
The rescue mission of the Ericsson, which can reach a speed of 22 miles per hour, was conducted in rough seas off the coast of the Solomon Islands, about 800 miles southeast of New Guinea.
While refueling Navy ships in the region, the Ericsson received radio messages from Australian and Papua New Guinea maritime rescue centers that a fishing boat crewed by five Solomon islanders, including a village chief, was foundering and taking on water in heavy rains and high waves.
At dawn the following day, the Ericsson discovered the listing craft and its crew who were waving frantically for assistance. The Ericsson inched alongside the boat, which had drifted at sea for three days and had run out of food, water and gasoline, and hoisted its crew aboard who were treated for dehydration and provided food, water, hot showers, dry clothing and berths.
The fishing boat was hauled aboard by one of the Ericsson’s cranes, and it and the crew were transported to shore the next day.
Because of the United States’ current “pivot” or “rebalancing” of forces to the Pacific to ward off possible provocations by North Korea and China, the Ericsson, one of 130-plus ships in the MSC’s fleet, has other responsibilities in the region as well.
One of these is in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, about 60 miles north of Guam, where the Ericsson, which can simultaneously refuel two ships while underway, services and fuels five MSC cargo ships that comprise its Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron Three anchored about a mile off the island of Saipan. the capital of the Marianas.
Named the USNS Bobo, USNS Dahl, USNS Pililaau, USNS Lummus and USNS Soderman, the vessels, whose lengths range from 673 to 950-feet, store and maintain tanks, trucks, small arms, ammunition, food, water, construction materials and medical supplies that would be used by Army and Marine Corps ground and amphibious forces flown or transported by ship to Guam, Saipan or other area ports if a regional emergency should occur.
Squadron Three’s ships, which, like the Ericsson, are unarmed noncombatants, can get underway immediately, and they periodically hold at-sea training maneuvers with active duty and reserve Army and Marine Corps forces from the U.S. mainland and overseas bases and with U.S. Seventh Fleet warships assigned to the Pacific.
Military cargo stored on the five USNS vessels is off-loaded by the ships’ cranes onto watercraft or “lighterage” also carried aboard the ships, for transfer to ports and beaches.
Tanks, trucks and other heavy cargoes with wheels are driven down the side ramps of the Saipan fleet ships onto mobile platform vessels nicknamed “piers in the ocean” that then transport the cargoes to air-cushioned landing craft for conveyance to beaches.
The U.S. is beefing up its armed presence in the Pacific with increased sea, air and land might, reopening long-closed bases in the region, entering into joint-base agreements with several nations including Australia and the Philippines and strengthening military alliances with Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia.
As this “pivot” escalates, the ships and men of the USNS Ericsson and the five-ship squadron anchored off Saipan will continue to be in the spotlight if tensions with North Korea and China continue.